In 2012, David Cameron spent an excruciatingly long two minutes discussing the Magna Carta with David Letterman. The British prime minister struggled to name the location where the iconic English document was signed and the whereabouts of the original copies. But he perked up when describing the charter’s significance. “The big moment of the Magna Carta was basically people saying to the king that other people have to have rights”—it was about “the crown not being able to just ride roughshod over everybody,” he said. Then the soaring moment hurtled back to earth. “And the literal translation [of Magna Carta] is what?” Letterman asked. Cameron had no idea.
The Magna Carta (“Great Charter”), which turns 800 years old on Monday, is often invoked in the U.K., the U.S., and around the world as a font of freedom, the touchstone for today’s constitutional democracy. But its specifics are largely forgotten. And what you realize in combing through the document, which was originally written in Latin and runs to about 4,500 words in English, is this: Those specifics are incredibly specific, which makes the charter’s widespread and enduring appeal all the more surprising.
Cameron, for instance, didn’t mention King John’s pledges to English barons to “at once return the son of Llywelyn, [and] all Welsh hostages” and bar from royal service the relatives of Gerard de Athée, namely “Engelard de Cigogné, Peter, Guy, and Andrew de Chanceaux, Guy de Cigogné, Geoffrey de Martigny and his brothers, Philip Marc and his brothers, with Geoffrey his nephew.” The British leader failed to cite the clause specifying that “no constable may compel a knight to pay money for castle-guard,” or the one noting that “inquests of novel disseisin, mort d’ancestor, and darrein presentment shall be taken only in their proper county court.”